Kempner, Harris (1837–1894)

By: Jane Manaster

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: May 27, 2016

Harris Kempner, businessman and Civil War soldier, was born in Krzepitz (now Krzepice), Russian Poland, on March 7, 1837. In 1854 he sailed to the United States, where he lived for a time in New York and studied English at night. About 1858 he moved to Cold Springs, San Jacinto County, Texas, and formed a mercantile partnership. During the Civil War he served the Confederacy with a Captain Stokes's company from Ellis County until injuries forced him from the fighting line and he became a quartermaster sergeant. He returned to Cold Springs after the war and turned his attention to economic problems of the cotton farmers. Kempner moved in 1870 to Galveston, where with a man named Marx Marx he established a wholesale grocery that became one of the largest such concerns in Texas and perhaps the South. The company took advantage of its location and imported such vital commodities as salt, coffee, and packing materials for cotton. Kempner invested in land but not in city property; he thought the latter overtaxed and financially risky.

After losing investments in the Island City Savings Bank of Galveston in 1885, he became president of the bank's reorganization committee. He was for many years president of the Texas Land and Loan Company. He was also a stockholder and director of national banks at Giddings, Cameron, Mexia, Ballinger, Athens, Groesbeck, Marble Falls, Gatesville, Velasco, and Hamilton. In 1886 his partnership with Marx dissolved, and he focused on improved transportation for cotton. To this end he served on the planning board of the Galveston Deep-Water Committee, which after his death acquired federal funds to construct the first deepwater port in the state. He also served as a charter member and lifelong director of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway.

Kempner was a devout Jew who appreciated the religious freedom available to him in the United States. He married Elizabeth Seinsheimer in 1872. Eight of their eleven children survived until adulthood. Though he never entered politics, he was a well-known public figure because of his considerable civic involvement. He aided many public enterprises in Galveston and in addition sent funds to bring relatives from Poland to the United States. The work he began was not halted by his death. His sons, under the guidance of the eldest, I. H. Kempner, continued and expanded the family business into a major diversified corporation. Kempner died on April 13, 1894. The Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund was founded in 1946 by family members.

Galveston News, April 14, 16, 1894. Isaac H. Kempner, "My Memories of Father," American Jewish Archives 19 (April 1967). S. G. Reed, A History of the Texas Railroads (Houston: St. Clair, 1941; rpt., New York: Arno, 1981). James A. Tinsley, ed., "Selected Letters of Harris Kempner," Texas Gulf Coast Historical Association Publications 1.2 (December 1957). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jane Manaster, “Kempner, Harris,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

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May 27, 2016